I spent a good part of my childhood in Toronto, and returned to the city for a couple of years of graduate school in the late 1990s, but since then I’ve only been back a handful of times. As it happens, I’m in the midst of one of those rare visits now, so I was able to attend the “Freedom Showdown” event staged by the group Canadians United Against Terror at Queen’s Park on Thursday evening. The star attraction was supposed to be the Koran-burning American pastor Terry Jones, but he was only one of a number of speakers scheduled to discuss free speech and the movie Innocence of Muslims. I was there as a curious onlooker, and as someone sympathetic to the idea of freely discussing controversial issues.
I rarely find myself at events of this type, and I wasn’t sure quite what to expect. A huge crowd, separated by a line of heavily equipped police from protestors baying for Jones’ head? Alas, it was much lower-key and less dramatic, no doubt partly because Jones was ultimately refused entry to Canada on the day of the event. When I arrived there was a podium in front of the legislature, a few police standing around with very little to do, and a group of a couple of dozen people milling around waiting for the proceedings to get underway. A few of the attendees had admittedly brought interesting signs, with messages ranging from “peace on Earth” to “supremacist Jews incite wars between allies Christianity and Islam”.
The event, when it started, proved to be intriguing, feisty and a bit shambolic. The organizer, Allan Einstoss, kicked things off on a peculiar note by announcing a moment of silence for the American army medic Christopher Speer, tendentiously described as a “hero” who had been “murdered” by Omar Khadr. The moment of silence was followed by a prayer for Speer and other victims of “acts of terror”, delivered by a Hindu priest and combined with a bit of sermonizing about karma and the need to fight for righteousness. Then it was back to Einstoss, who waxed eloquent about the value of free speech in general and the importance of being allowed to criticize and blaspheme against Islam in particular. This set the tone for most of what followed – an event ostensibly dedicated to upholding the principle of free speech, but in practice seemingly aimed at putting Islam on trial.
In Jones’ absence, the main speakers on behalf of what might be called the prosecution were Masud Ansari, author of a number of books including one called Psychology of Mohammed, and Ron Banerjee from Canadian Hindu Advocacy. Banerjee, the more articulate of the two, argued emphatically that Islam differed from “real religions” (a category that seemed to include all the other major ones) because of its supposed inability to peacefully tolerate dissent and criticism, and was therefore merely an ideology. It wasn’t clear whether he’d forgotten about delightful manifestations of Christian intolerance such as the Inquisition, or whether he considered Christianity to have gradually evolved from being an ideology to being a real religion as it (mostly) stopped indulging in that sort of thing. Ansari trotted out some Koranic verses that supposedly endorse the killing of non-Muslims and forbid any attempt to make peace with them, though I had no way of telling if they’d been taken out of context. He did have a pretty good line based on a notion he attributed to Einstein, namely that religion is a caricature of God (I don’t know if Einstein ever put it quite like that, though this article on his views did). Islam, said Ansari, was a caricature of an evil god. So there.
Appearing for the defense, more or less, were Imam Steve Rockwell and Mubin Shaikh. Rockwell turned up only at the last minute, and his absence at the beginning of the event initially led Einstoss to denounce him as a “coward” who was afraid to face opponents of Islam. Einstoss didn’t apologize when Rockwell appeared. When Rockwell took the podium he came across as animated and perhaps a bit flaky, but certainly not cowardly. He argued that Jones should be kept out of Canada because the “poison” of his anti-Islamic views would lead to acts of extremism, such as the appearance of a bottle of gasoline outside a mosque in Charlottetown, and he hinted at the possibility that Muslims themselves might carry out violent reprisals with an odd analogy about how people might respond if one said their female relatives were prostitutes (personally, I’d be more bothered if they converted to Islam than if they took up the oldest, and still honourable, profession). He also complained about supposed anti-Semitism in the New Testament, a depiction of Mohammed performing cunnilingus in Innocence of Muslims, and the presence of noisy dogs in the crowd. Shaikh, a former Islamic radical who turned informant on the Toronto 18, was a genial presence who accused Ansari of misquoting the Koran and took a well-placed jab at Banerjee for singling out Islam as particularly intolerant of dissent. He seemed to think we should all just be civil and get along.
Einstoss wrapped up the event with a couple of statements that surprised me. He said clearly that he was an atheist who regarded religion as “fairy tales”, although he was also quick to point out that he respected religion and generally believed that it did more good than harm. This left me wondering why he seemed so dead set against Islam, which after all is just another edition of the Brothers Grimm, in particular. One can make a good case that Islam breeds more violence and theocratic repression than any other religion at this specific time in human history, but the difference is surely one of degree rather than kind. More worryingly, Einstoss also said that about 20 possible venues had refused to host the “Freedom Showdown” event before Queen’s Park finally came through with a permit on short notice. There was nothing fundamentally objectionable or dangerous about any of the speakers, and in my opinion it should be easier for a public discussion like this to be organized in Canada. Religion may be a touchy subject, but democratic civil society is all about being able to have tough conversations and still respect each other in the morning.